My friend and mentor John Ellsworth Winter spent much of his life talking and teaching about death and dying. It takes a special teacher who can engage undergrads with a philosophy course entitled Thanatopsis: A Consideration of Death.
After his own death in January, John left behind scraps of paper, index cards, notes in the margins of books he read, and more. Many of these scribbles contain his thoughts and feelings about death.
I came upon this reflection he wrote at the end of his book Glorious Tragedy. Here, John shares his thoughts about what to say to those who are dying:
Rather than ask the condition of dying persons we would do better to greet them with a particular non-confrontive Polynesian greeting shared when meeting someone: “THERE YOU ARE!”
The greeting, so different from “Hello,” “Hi,” or “How are you?” is a healing poultice beholding the excellency of anyone, including a dying person. Immediately the greeted one has standing. Excitement accompanies the recognition of “THERE YOU ARE!” The phrase is invitation for them to engage in conversation.
THERE YOU ARE is an avowal to dying persons that they still are worthy of being spoken to, thought of, accepted as human though dying, as still viable beings who talk and listen.
THERE YOU ARE is an earthly form of a mystery solved, a problem overcome, an obstacle surmounted, a lost pearl of great price found, a journey soon to be taken and now being prepared for.
Those three words tell addressees they are important, alive, and ready for the future whatever it may be.
Those three words grant status to the addressees. They say, “Talk with me. Tell me.”
THERE YOU ARE!
John’s words remind me that all of us desire to be heard. And those who are dying often have the most worthwhile things to say.
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you…” John 1:48
Even if your favorite picture didn’t win an Oscar this year, it was hard not to shed a tear watching Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper sing “Shallow.” Watch it here
I confess that before that night I had not really paid attention much to the poetry of the lyrics. The song begins as Cooper asks,
Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?
He admits, “I’m falling….and in the bad times I fear myself.”
Gaga responds with a similar sentiment,
Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?
She echoes his words, “I’m falling…and in the bad times I fear myself.”
But then Gaga belts out the emotional climax of the song:
I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now
As I’ve thought about the song, I’ve thought of all the times in the midst of “bad times,” I’ve chosen to stay shallow. I’ve filled the void with the superficial. I’ve dwelt in anxiety or fear.
This week I’m inspired by Lady Gaga’s call to go off the deep end. Let them watch as we dive in!
“For God did not give us a spirit of fear…” 2 Timothy 1:7
Memes get the most attention on social media. But some thoughts just can’t be put into a meme. They are too painful. Too deep to whittle down to a few characters. Too important to try to be clever with a few words.
I am grieving today.
Before I write any more… to you who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersexual, queer, questioning, asexual or allies: You are loved by God just as you are.
I grieve for the church. I grieve for the church which has once again failed you. I grieve for the church which has chosen not to follow the example of Jesus. I grieve for the church which has once again hurt children of God.
I grieve that I did not expect it. I grieve that I did not educate myself enough before this vote. I grieve that I did not reach out to my United Methodist colleagues and friends. I grieve that I remained in my own bubble.
Yesterday our siblings in Christ, the United Methodist Church (UMC), at a Special General Conference narrowly voted for a policy which prohibits same sex marriage, prohibits clergy in same sex relationships, and strengthens sanctions against individuals and congregations which go against these policies. *
This vote wounds more than United Methodists. It wounds the church as a whole. It wounds our collective witness to a God of love.
Far more important than the wounds to the church as a whole though, are the wounds to individuals. People who have been on the margins; people who have been told that somehow they are less than others in God’s eyes; people who had to listen to testimonies on a debate floor declaring that they are not what God intended; people who have sometimes dared to step forth inside a church and once again see the door slammed shut.
So today I grieve. I am listening to those who have been hurt.
I believe in a God of resurrection. I believe in a God of new creation. But today it is still Good Friday.
*The United Methodist Church is a global church and about 1/3 of its members are from African and Asian countries many of which have laws banning homosexual activity. Speakers at the conference from these countries tended to be the most vocal proponents of the approved policy. There are constitutional issues to the approved policy as well, so it is unlikely to be implemented exactly as voted.
When I was in medical training, much of my practice centered around the research and treatment… and pain and fear and devastation of those with HIV/AIDS.
I recall one evening as I was wandering the halls of the medical floor wondering if people outside of the hospital setting really knew what was happening. More than half of my patients had been admitted due to some medical complication of HIV/AIDS: pneumonia, vomiting/dehydration, delirium, or AIDS wasting disease. Very often the first time someone learned they had HIV/AIDS was at the time of their hospital admission and I as a young doctor of 28 or 29 years old was telling a young man my own age that he had a disease for which there was no cure.
It was only slightly different on the pediatric wards. There weren’t the numbers of children with HIV/AIDS there, but we would admit the same children over and over again due to various complications of their illness. We got to know them. We became attached to them. And then they died.
In the developed world, HIV/AIDS is a different illness twenty-five years later. Whereas life expectancy after diagnosis was 1 or 2 years back when I was in training, now the CDC says that those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and treated can expect to live nearly as long as those without HIV.
HIV/AIDS is a chronic illness which can be managed much like diabetes. We have effective ways to prevent it in children whose mothers are infected. And what’s most amazing to me is that when I speak with hospital residents these days, very little of their inpatient experience is related to the care and treatment of those with HIV/AIDS. It is largely an outpatient disease.
Today I am giving thanks for medical advances. I am giving money to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. And I am remembering G, a delightful 5 year old girl who could laugh and sing and pout and cry and loved Coca Cola and who died in 1997 due to complications of AIDS.
What is your favorite movie?
Favorite college football team?
How about your favorite kind of pie?
At this time of year sometimes we worry about the different opinions that will be around the dinner table over the holidays.
We could try to stifle all opinions. Avoid conflict. No talk about politics or religion or movies or football.
I think that would be a shame, though.
Respectful conversation with people whose opinions are different from our own is an important life skill. It can be a spiritual practice.
And sometimes, different opinions means there is both pumpkin and pecan pie for dessert.
My dog Carly loves snow.
She doesn’t worry about shoveling. She doesn’t worry about driving. She doesn’t worry about changed schedules and plans.
Before we worry about all those things, let’s just take a moment to enjoy the snow.